A false sense of security

| 1st February 2004
We are all aware that the weather is never quite the same from one year to the next. That is all part of the natural variability of climate. It is the task of climatologists to tease out any change to climate, such as global warming, from all that variability.

One way to do that is to average out temperature or precipitation data during the previous 30 years; there must be clear evidence of change over time, and not just a flash-in-the-pan aberration caused by natural variability.

Clearly, it is no good taking one warm year in isolation as evidence of global warming. But, while statistically correct, using a 30-year average to track trends may lead us into missing a sudden transition when some threshold, unbeknown to us, has been crossed. We could then find ourselves irrevocably committed to a new climate regime.

We are all aware that the weather is never quite the same from one year to the next. That is all part of the natural variability of climate. It is the task of climatologists to tease out any change to climate, such as global warming, from all that variability.

In 1990 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that global emissions must immediately be reduced by over 60 per cent in order to stabilise carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a reasonably ‘safe’ level. Since 1990, however, global emissions have risen by 10 per cent. Unless immediate and dramatic action is taken to massively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the world will not be habitable for our children – let alone our grandchildren.

All national governments should ratify and implement the Kyoto Protocol immediately. Currently, the US, which produces around a quarter of the world’s emissions, and Russia, which produces about 6 per cent, are refusing to sign. It’s true that Kyoto only mandates a tiny cut in emissions, at a time when massive cuts are needed. But its real value perhaps lies in the fact that it represents a long-term process for bringing all the world’s nations together.

Kick the fossil fuel habit

 a) Governments should stop giving the $300 billion they pay worldwide in subsidies each year for the exploration and development of new oil, coal and gas projects. In addition, an end should be put to the public financing of fossil fuel projects through export credit agencies and multilateral development banks. World Bank fossil fuel projects from 1992 onwards will eventually contribute 38 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the earth’s atmosphere; that’s equal to 1.7 times the total emitted by all the world’s countries in 1996. See www.seen.org, www.bankwatch.org, and www.eca-watch.org

 b) Governments should immediately start phasing out the use of coal-fired power stations. Together, electricity and heat production constitute the world’s single largest source of carbon emissions (39 per cent). Coal-fired power stations supply most of the world’s electricity (34 per cent). Coal has the highest carbon content of the fossil fuels, and coal-fired power stations emit up to three times as much carbon dioxide per unit of output as the most modern gas-fired plants. See Friends of the Earth's report Carbon Dinosaurs at www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/carbon_dinosaurs.pdf


 c) Governments should rapidly phase in clean, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, wave, tidal, geothermal, hydro and biomass. According to Greenpeace, wind farms off Britain’s coasts alone could supply our current electricity needs three times over. To find out about Greenpeace’s renewable energy campaign, go to: www.greenpeace.org.uk/redirect2.cfm? pageparam="%20gp_wind_solar"

Take personal action to reduce emissions

While it is completely justified to blame Bush and the oil companies for causing and perpetuating climate change, we all have a role to play in reducing emissions.

 a) Cut space heating, which consumes half of domestic energy use. Make homes and offices energy-efficient: insulate walls, double-glaze windows, replace old boilers, use solar water heaters and buy energy-efficient appliances. Governments should play a role in this by providing investment, grants and tax breaks for the development and purchase of energy-saving devices. To see what you can do today, visit the Energy Savings Trust website at www.est.org.uk

 b) Switch to green electricity. Use market forces to help expand the renewable energy sector at little more than a flick of a switch. Visit the website of renewable electricity supplier unit[e] at www.unit-e.co.uk/switch

 c) Travel lightly. Transport is the fastest growing contributor to global warming, and the second largest source of carbon dioxide emissions (24 per cent). Wherever possible, reduce car use, walk or cycle for shorter journeys, and use buses and trains for longer ones. Governments should ban four-by-fours (or station wagons), which emit up to three times more carbon dioxide as other cars, subsidise green fuels, tax aviation fuel and actively discourage short-haul flights.

 d) Buy locally grown organic food from small, local shops. The tonnage of food shipped between countries has grown four-fold over the last 40 years. With a typical meal using local ingredients up to 17 times less petroleum is used in transport than with the same meal bought from a supermarket. And if food is organic, it hasn’t been coated in petroleum-based pesticides or grown using petroleum-based fertilisers.

 e) Invest carefully. The world’s 10 largest investment funds are responsible for investing an estimated $11 trillion. If the 30 largest funds were to divert 1 per cent of their investments away from carbon-based industries it would represent $100 billion not going into climate-changing businesses.

It’s Climate Change, Stupid!

Don’t leave climate change to the experts. It is a simple issue, it affects us all, and it’s only because of our silence that the carbon economy remains so powerful. So, don’t leave it to someone else: speak out about climate change. Grassroots, public pressure could be our only chance of saving this planet.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2004


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here